Parenting

What Milestones Are Like When You Lose A Parent At A Young Age

Your feelings about success and achievement likely change.
Celebrating milestones and big life achievements can cause a resurgence of grief for those who lost a parent at an early age.
Celebrating milestones and big life achievements can cause a resurgence of grief for those who lost a parent at an early age.

Losing a parent feels insurmountable at any age. Our series helps you face it ― from the practical logistics to the existential questions about death and dying today.

There’s a line in “Rabbit Is Rich,” the third of John Updike’s Rabbit Angstrom novels, that’s always stuck with me. Long past his prime and high school glory days, the protagonist Harry “Rabbit” Angstrom, gets a little retrospective.

“What you lose as you age is witnesses, the ones that watched from early on and cared, like your own little grandstand,” the former basketball golden boy muses, taking stock of his life.

But Rabbit is contemplating his parents’ passing as a middle-aged man. His career is squared away, he’s seen his own son off to college. Yet when a parent dies early ― before these milestones have passed ― you lose that cheering section, that truly invested audience decades before you expected to.

My dad died from prostate cancer when I was 18 ― not a kid and older than my sister but not quite an adult, either. I was lucky to have him around during my formative years: the “I failed algebra again” days, the exasperated “I can’t with mom anymore” teen girl years.

But he was gone by the time I graduated college. Gone when I landed my first internship and job, fell in love for the first time and had my heart broken for the first time. Gone when I negotiated my first raise and moved into my first apartment alone. (As wonderful and full of love as my mom is, my dad was always my sounding board, the go-to encourager in my life.)

My dad and me on an elephant ride.
My dad and me on an elephant ride.

When a parent dies when you are young, it’s like you are left to free-fall without a parachute while everyone around you is getting helicoptered-parented well into their 30s.

If you’re a teen when they die, you’re just aging out of individuation, that shaky stage of life when you break away from your parents to establish your independent self. But then, death makes that separation irrevocable, permanent in a way you never wished for.

It’s a struggle that Hope Edelman, the author of the bestselling book “Motherless Daughters: The Legacy of Loss” often hears about when she speaks to young adults at lectures and grief workshops. (She’s experienced it, too; she was 17 years old when her mother died from breast cancer.)

“As a child or teen, you have to juggle both the demands of adolescence and the demands of bereavement, which together can feel overwhelming,” she said. “This may cause you to put your grief aside until you feel capable of attending to it later on.”

Oftentimes, “later on” is in the midst of big life milestones or change. Experiencing something big without “your witness” can cause a resurgence of grief, Edelman said.

“In those moments, you find yourself revisiting and renegotiating your relationship to the loss from a new and different perspective,” she told me. “It’s not the same kind of grief you feel right after a death; it’s more of a flare-up of longing, like an internal volume knob has been turned up again.”

These little flareups don’t mean you grieved improperly or should have stayed in therapy longer. They just crop up unannounced, even decades later. It’s part of the crummy protracted grief package you’re left with after your parent’s death.

“When a parent dies when you are young, it’s like you are left to free-fall without a parachute while everyone around you is getting helicoptered-parented well into their 30s.”

Without your witness, you wonder: Am I doing this adult thing right? Would they be proud of my career accomplishments?

Before my dad died, I was conflicted on a career path. He never was; once he realized I sucked at tennis, he’d always wanted me to be a lawyer. (In a slight variation on your standard set of Asian parent expectations― “be an engineer, doctor or lawyer”― my dad never wanted us to follow in his doctor footsteps. “Too little money and too many hours,” he joked.)

Career-wise, my dad had done it all: competed in bodybuilding competitions on Muscle Beach with his brother, published a bodybuilding magazine (a period in which he claimed he made a frenemy of a “Pumping Iron”-era Arnold Schwarzenegger), gone to medical school and started a medical practice.

But toward the end of his life, he was mostly just a semi-retired doctor with writerly aspirations. (There’s a folder somewhere of his silly Shel Silverstein-esque poems about hemorrhoids and other ailments, and floppy discs containing a “baseball love story saga” in the style of a Kevin Costner movie.)

He knew his writing was only so-so, but he took it seriously, dog-earring pages of Stephen King’s “On Writing” and passages of the romance novels he’d become a student of. (He really wanted to nail the “love story saga” part of his book.) And surprisingly, he took me seriously as a writer.

“You’re a real writer,” he told me once when I let him read an undergraduate essay. After his death, I took those words as a loose endorsement of switching my major from psychology to journalism. I hope he’d be proud of me now (if not a little disappointed by the money, given his take on a doctor’s salary).

You lose your cheerleader during non-career milestone events, too. Nick Freiling, a market research analyst and the founder of PeopleFish, lost his mom to colon cancer when she was 33 and he was eight. When he married a few years back, he really wished she was in the grandstands for that.

Even weeks after the ceremony, all he could think was, What kind of ‘witness’ would his mom be at his wedding, to his marriage?

Nick Freiling on the right, with his brother and mom. She died when he was 8.
Nick Freiling on the right, with his brother and mom. She died when he was 8.

“I kept asking myself, would she have liked my wife? Would she have approved of me marrying so young at 22? Would she have danced? Cried? Drank too much? Embarrassed me? Would she have given a toast?” he said. “I don’t know the answers, and I think that’s why I missed her so much.”

At the very least, Nick knows his mom was certain he was husband material: “One of the most vivid memories I have of my mother was her telling me I would get married someday,” he said.

That’s one thing you do as an early member of the Dead Parents Club: Grasp onto little things your mom or dad said, even in passing, and consider it irrefutable proof they’d be proud of something you’ve done.

Litsa Williams, a social worker in Baltimore and co-founder of What’s Your Grief, a grief support site, was 18 when her dad died. (“I was just wrapping up my freshman year of college,” she said. “The fact that he took me off to college and wasn’t there when I finished felt profound.”) It’s easy for her to imagine how he would have responded to her graduation and later successes.

“My dad was an understated guy with a biting sense of humor,” she said. “I have no doubt he would have been incredibly proud of me and probably would have just given me a hard time about how silly I looked in a graduation gown. He likely would have relied on the fact that he never needed to tell me he was proud of me because he always showed it.”

Litsa Williams and her father. He died when she was 18.
Litsa Williams and her father. He died when she was 18.

And even if you are unsure about such things, people who knew your family usually are always quick to tell you, unprompted, how proud your mom or dad would be. The best of them will sit with you when you just want to lean into your sadness and exchange memories when you’re in the mood to reminisce.

In moments like that, close friends and family become a bigger part of your grandstand. You find new people to fill some seats, too: a spouse you’re eager to start a family with or a friend who’s particularly good at celebrating or commiserating over career highs and lows. Thirteen years after my dad’s death, I can assure you that you find new “witnesses” who want to watch and cheer as you navigate life ― but I’ll always miss seeing my dad up there.